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Creating Authentic Connections

Authentic connections add deeper meaning and purpose to your life.

Key points

  • An authentic connection is a genuine connection with someone else — dropping the facade, showing vulnerability and sharing one's true self.
  • Ways to begin creating an authentic connection include sitting with another's emotions, showing interest and listening deeply and without motive.
  • Opening oneself up to authentic connections is a rewarding experience that can add a deeper sense of meaning and purpose to one's life.

“Don’t just say something — sit there.”

This one phrase is the advice I received from my grad school clinical supervisor, and it shifted how I thought about connection. My first assigned patient had just learned that she had a recurrence of her cancer. I felt shocked and confused as to why they would send me, an inexperienced intern, to talk with her. I imagined the patient would see my youth and lack of experience as evidence that I could not understand her experience, nor would she want to connect with me.

What my patient didn’t know was that as a teen, I had lost my own father to cancer. While I might not have experienced the illness firsthand, I did understand the impact of cancer, and it was the sole reason that I had chosen this career path. I did want to help, and it was up to me to establish an authentic connection with this patient so that she would feel that she could both trust and talk with me.

What Is an Authentic Connection?

An authentic connection is a genuine and real connection with someone else in the present moment. We all wear masks and build facades to protect ourselves, but humans naturally crave interaction and connection with other humans. Showing vulnerability and sharing your true self with someone else starts with the ability to listen and sit in their space, in order for them to want to share their world with you. In the wise words of my supervisor, don’t just say something to fill the space and ease the awkwardness you may perceive. Instead, sit there, and just be with them.

Markus Spiske/Unsplash
Source: Markus Spiske/Unsplash

Some connections feel a little easier to create. Reconnection, especially after a long period of separation, is something many of us are currently experiencing. We’re catching up with friends and family, groups we belong to, and engaging in pre-pandemic habits. Now is a perfect opportunity to evaluate those relationships and see which connections you would like to develop and strengthen. We’ve all had some challenges over the past year, and we can choose to really open up to one another in this shared experience of loss and change.

But how can we just “sit there” when someone is suffering? It may not seem like the “right” thing to do. We may not even know how to just be with someone else, especially when we cannot fix whatever they are struggling with. In what ways can we show someone that we want to be there with them and support them, no matter what they are experiencing?

5 Simple Ways to Begin the Creation of an Authentic Connection

Just be. This requires sitting with another's emotions regardless of how uncomfortable they make us feel. It is the most important aspect of what some people refer to as “creating space,” which leads to increased trust and intimacy with another, both necessary for real connection.

Deeply listen. What is being said? What may not be spoken but might be under the surface? Notice if there might be anything more, especially based on the person’s non-verbal communication.

Curiosity. Show interest and curiosity in what the person is saying. Invite the person to share what else: What else are they thinking and feeling about the situation? Tell me what the most difficult aspect of this situation is for you? What are you most concerned about or fearful of? Do you know why you are feeling this way? Is there more?

Empathizing. Even if we have not been in the same situation or set of circumstances, imagining how the person that you are interacting with might feel based on what they have told you enables us to be emphatically attuned to their experience.

Listen without motive. Sit with, listen, and hear the person talk without thinking of what’s next. If you’re really listening, you won’t be thinking about what you’ll say in response. Rather, you’ll be focusing your attention on their words and non-verbal communication. Remember that you don’t have to “fix” the issues the other person is talking about. If you do have some ideas, perhaps you can offer them by first asking the person, “Would you like help with possible solutions, or do you just want a place to put it?”

Many of us remember the moments that challenge and ultimately change us. As a new trainee, I had no idea that this experience and the wisdom I was given would prove to be helpful for the rest of my life, both personally and professionally.

As a parent of two emerging adults who are now quite independent in their respective lives, and as a teen and college transition coach for girls, I often remember these words and have embraced their meaning throughout my life. Opening yourself up to authentic connections with others is a rewarding experience that will add a deeper sense of meaning and purpose to your life. Learning how to sit with another’s pain and suffering is a great place to start.

More from Pamela S. Willsey LICSW, BCD, PCC
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